What I Hear as an Informal Graduate Student Mentor
By Nancy Holt, PhD
Over the years of leading Science for New York (Sci4NY), I’ve had a number of frank conversations with graduate students in the sciences about the challenges they’ve faced in their research positions. I’ll note that — even after being involved with academics in varying capacities for more than a decade — the stories people share still manage to amaze and surprise me, more often than not in adverse ways.
Since Sci4NY operates on an experiential learning-based approach, it allows me to build working relationships with students beyond the standard teaching-based framework. These can be one on one or in a group setting, but notably it involves some kind of sustained, interactive feedback loop. The fact that many of the students are near the end of their graduate careers and are looking for less traditional academic career paths also plays a role.
Here I strive to relay the core topics of conversations that have stuck with me for those that it might help — now or down the line.
Graduate Institutions Sometimes Protect Their Own Faculty and Interests at All Costs: Many students come to graduate school with a certain level of idealism. The most common reason I hear for pursing this career path is that they wanted to have a positive impact on the world through science. For many, seeing behind the proverbial curtain, and realizing that their institution will not look out for their well-being over their own can be difficult to process. Lack of forums to discuss these challenges can make people feel isolated, and, therefore, less likely to speak up — further enabling the institution’s approach. In some cases, the matter can become so challenging that students either retain some kind of trauma by staying or decide to leave without completing their degree.
While I am not an expert on how to handle such situations, I believe they must be more frequently talked about publicly — both as factors to consider before applying to graduate school and while going through the program. Sometimes there are routes to internal solutions, which may be institution specific. Another way to protect your interests is by building up experience in areas beyond direct academic research while still in graduate school. This way, you keep your options open should you find yourself in these circumstances. Importantly, such activities can also offer healthy and productive outlets to channel your frustrations.
Normalize Getting a Master’s Degree: There is a long-held stigma about leaving graduate school in the sciences after completion of a master’s degree. If your career goal does not involve becoming a professor, stopping after you complete the master’s degree may make a lot of professional and personal sense. Many jobs do not require a PhD and the extra time spent in the program to meet this outcome can be unproductive in terms of your goals and earnings, both near and long term.
In fact, it might be the best choice from a professional standpoint, where having a PhD can make you too specialized for certain positions. Consider looking at job listings earlier on in your program, finding out not just what appeals to you, but also what qualifications they want in applicants. If it’s not a PhD — seriously weigh your options. Furthermore, it is important to change the notion that not completing your PhD once you’ve started it implies you’ve wasted your time. Whether to continue investing in a situation that doesn’t work for you is the real calculation to consider.
The Scientific Career Approach is Backwards: Conversations about what you want to do after graduate school happen too close to the end of the process. The assumption of many scientific institutions is that you are getting a PhD to be a professor — which may not be true. Also, there are not enough positions to meet demand. While you can attend workshops about career options until you’re blue in the face, without experience that demonstrates you have the skills and qualifications being sought by the employer, it’s unlikely you’ll wind up with the position you envision.
If you look at advanced degree programs beyond the sciences, they often tout their job placement statistics when attempting to attract applicants. While there are a number of differences between such programs in the sciences and other areas of study, that shouldn’t let graduate programs in the sciences off the hook for poor track records and/or limited career resource offerings.
A Life Outside of the Lab is a Good Thing: Unless you’re falling behind in a significant and sustained manner (research and life has its ebbs and flows, so short-term challenges are to be expected) you are largely allowed to spend your free time however you like. In fact, I encourage making the most of it. As mentioned, pursuing other interests is generally healthy and professionally productive.
As far as I am aware (but please do your own investigations here based on your specific circumstances), the only restrictions on extracurricular pursuits are ones that are conflicts of interest (perceived or otherwise). Even in these rather limited instances, solutions may exist. Any attempt by your advisor to limit what you do outside of lab can be challenging to navigate. Nonetheless, I see it as an overstepping of their role.
Beyond these conversations with graduate students, another one stuck with me from someone who left academia. The topic of conversation was, “Would I advise people to get a PhD?” I’ll note that I see my role as a mentor as helping to support people in what they want to do, as opposed to trying to tell them what to do. For me personally, I’m mixed. My PhD allowed me to do a science policy fellowship, but I also wonder if I would have been better off pursing a more conventional policy career path instead. At the time, I did not have sufficient exposure to my options to make an informed decision.
The PhD track has a lot of challenges that we need to openly discuss more. Whatever you’re experiencing is likely part of a bigger trend that would benefit from more focus on how graduate students can better advocate for themselves and their fellow lab mates. Don’t forget that there are lots of people slightly removed from academia that can serve as good sounding boards as well.
Nancy Holt leads Science for New York (Sci4NY), which brings policymakers and scientists together to improve the well-being of NYC. On Twitter @Sci4NY. She holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) policy fellow at the U.S. Department of State.